Reporting From Broadway

Capturing Two Female Icons

Steinem and Cher, so different — and so similar

Among the biographical details about Gloria Steinem in Gloria: A Life, by Emily Mann, one observation in particular pricked up my ears. “I had a near pathological fear of public speaking — I go to a speech teacher. (To teacher): I actually lose all my saliva, and each tooth feels like it has a little angora sweater on it,” Christine Lahti, as Gloria, tells us.

Steinem was and is many things. And if she wasn’t born with it, she created it — such as a word she invented, now part of the English lexicon, “Ms.” That her own personal struggles were born in a disenfranchised childhood is astonishing, because we recognize her for her celebrity, as someone who rose above the commonplace and the common person.

Her stories about her family are shocking. After her parents were divorced, Gloria and her mother lived in her mother’s family home, where there was no heat. And it was rat- infested. From the ages of 11 to 17, she took care of her mother, an invalid who was addicted to prescription tranquilizers. As Gloria confides, she spent her days in bed, “her lips sometimes moving in response to voices only she can hear.”

The radical trajectory of Steinem’s personal and professional life obviously speaks for itself. Still, to have come from that background and to enter Smith College was an unheard-of leap in the 1950s, as it would be today. Most of her classmates, she dryly notes, were there to find Mr. Right.

As her biographer, Emily Mann offers the perspective of a woman who also has succeeded in a male-dominated world. As a trailblazing director, Mann has garnered two Tony Awards, and as a playwright, she’s been recognized with numerous accolades, including the Obie. Most importantly, she brings a sense of ease and warmth to this herstory of Gloria Steinem that speaks to the spirit of Feminism’s Second Wave.

Focusing on the issues of women’s equality in domestic life as well as in the workplace, Mann highlights the major feminist objectives of the day: legalizing abortion and federally-funded daycare centers. Betty Friedan may be the mother of feminism’s second wave, but its spiritual leader was Steinem. In her seminal work as an undercover Playboy Bunny at The Playboy Club, reporting on the mistreatment of women employees, the movement had found a powerful voice.

As designed by Amy Rubi, the theatrical space invites us into Gloria’s living space, with Persian rugs, Moroccan pillows, and piles of books, surrounded by tiers of benches like an amphitheater. We recognize this homespun space as a meeting place for consciousness-raising, a place where women sit around in a circle and tell their stories. Through their discourse, they created communities in which the inequalities between men and women were recognized and addressed.

Accordingly, the creative team here is all women. As directed by Diane Paulus, the production is less a curated retrospective about Gloria Steinem than a real-time reimaging of her life. The show moves swiftly, albeit with heartfelt commitment.

Christine Lahti is marvelous, channeling the daring, charisma, and strength of the iconic Gloria. She’s also embraced by an ensemble of actors, her peers and colleagues — women of all ages, from all walks of life.

The production feels experiential, insofar as the play brings us in touch with ourselves and our own herstory. There is an open talkback with Lahti after each show.

That Gloria Steinem’s story is universal makes it most compelling. “It wasn’t until I was a grown woman that I found out — long before I was born — my mother was a journalist! Like me,” Gloria confides. Her mother published articles under a man’s name and, finally, in her 20s, “she became the Sunday editor of The Toledo Blade — which must have been a really, really big deal. I mean, women had barely won the vote!”

The Cher Show

At the top of The Cher Show, Stephanie J Block enters with a plume of glittering black feathers on her back, like taxidermy, or in this case a gay icon. “Don’t try this at home, queens,” Cher (Block) warns. Like Cher, this show has attitude.

As designed by Bob Mackie, the costumes are magnificent, featuring outré designs by the man who originated the pop icon’s famous fashions — King Tut-inspired headdresses and Native American ones, gowns of glitter and plastic and shiny metal pop out, along with a lot of bare skin. Each piece is a spectacle.

Written by Rick Elice, of Jersey Boys fame, The Cher Show includes 35 songs from the rock star’s oeuvre. But this production has a more metatheatrical feel than Elice’s earlier work. Here, Cher tells her story while it is being acted out. In fact, it takes three actors to portray her. Micaella Diamond plays her as a youth, Teal Wicks during her mid-career, and Stephanie J Block from the ’80s to the present. Mackie is both the designer, and as played by Michael Berresse, a character in the show. By the way, Cher is one of the producers.

In this story about the hero goddess, the glitter and glamour with which she surrounds herself also sucks her dry. She and Sonny Bono (Jarrod Spector) run like flower children through wild times, but they also fall into debt, get crucified for tax evasion, all while Cher breaks down from the pressures of show business.

As her husband and co-star, Sonny managed Cher’s affairs and acquired sole ownership of Cher Enterprises, which made for a very unequal relationship and caused Cher to walk out on their top-rated TV series, The Sonny & Cher Show. As depicted here, their bitter divorce is followed by reconciliation. But the image of Sonny as an abusive and selfish husband continues until his death, when Cher accepts that he acted out of love — at least as he perceived it.

Structurally, the musical gives a wink to the sketch style they developed in the TV show. That corny, low-tech, and highly imitational style contrasts here with sophisticated and erotically choreographed scenes that give the show variety. And Christopher Gattelli’s choreography sets up extravagant, intensely sensual dances, as well as those that epitomize teenybopper gymnastics.

Act II focuses on Cher’s later achievements — her role in Silkwood, and her Academy Award for Moonstruck, along with a string of farewell tours… the endless farewells for which aging divas are known.

Jason Moore, of Avenue Q fame, pulls out all the stops in delivering a fashion-drunk, high-stakes Hollywood jukebox musical. Among the performances, Emily Skinner plays Cher’s mother, the minor celebrity Georgia Holt gracefully, morphing from youth to old age. That the three Chers all look and sound remarkably like Cher is amazing. Still, the standout is Stephanie J Block’s powerhouse performance.